[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man's 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
I recently told an incredible artist and doer how much I envy her skill set. People who can build art cars or set up great camps … or even use tools … are heroes to me when they do it for the common good.
“Well,” she said, “we really value what you do.”
“What I do?” I asked, genuinely confused. I am so useless on the playa that … this is true … some Media Mecca volunteers once got drafted to set up my tent.
“Well, yes,” she said. “You write these blogs. You gift us with your writing.”
I nearly choked on my whiskey.
What followed was 10 minutes of one of the stupidest “YOUR contribution’s more important! No YOUR contribution’s more important!” arguments I’ve had in years. Because while I yield to no one’s estimation of just how talented a writer I am, writing blog posts from the comfort of my own home, (often) drunk and (usually) naked, is not a gift or sacrifice on the order of dragging a massive construction project to the playa and laboring to set it up in 100 degree heat while alkaline dust whips at your eyes, and then getting drunk and naked.
How is this even close?
It’s nice that we all appreciate each other, I suppose, but I think many of us are a little too easy on ourselves.
The notion that everybody’s contribution counts, that it doesn’t matter what you can do so long as you share your gifts, is a good one when it encourages people to step up to the plate and discover a capacity to give that they didn’t know they had. To find ways to engage with their community that they otherwise wouldn’t, or think they couldn’t.
Too often, however, it’s used as an excuse to half-ass a commitment we don’t really want to make. To say “I’ve done enough” when we’ve hardly done anything we’re capable of.
Here are some activities that don’t actually qualify as “gifts,” no matter how much you think of yourself:
- Taking photographs that nobody asked for, even implicitly. That’s really not for them, is it?
- DJing. I’m sorry, but except in rare circumstances, it’s true. If you help build a radio station for the entire playa, okay, but otherwise you’re on extremely thin ice.
- Dancing. Which, for the record, is also not an “art” contribution, unless you’re in fact an artist who has been asked to perform a shift of some kind as part of a ceremony or event – or you’re creating a ceremony or event.
- Wearing a revealing outfit. I know you look great. I too would like to fuck you. But narcissism just doesn’t count as a gift.
- Hugs. I don’t mean standing outside surrounded by traffic to make sure that every person entering BlackRockCity is personally welcomed, like the Greeters do. I mean just hugging people and saying it’s your gift. In which case that had better be one hell of a hug. So good or interesting that whoever received the hug will still be thankful for it a month from now. That kind of hug is a gift, and I would like one please. Anything less doesn’t meet the bar.
- Fucking with other people. Look: I love fucking with people too. And I think it’s well worth doing. But even if we can justify it by saying that it makes everyone’s life more interesting and they learned a valuable lesson (which they didn’t really), let’s not get self-righteous about it. In fact, anyone who fucks with other people and thinks it’s “gifting” deserves to be severely fucked with.
These are not gifts – they are excuses not to give.
But while the camp builders and art car runners are the heroic pinnacles of the gifting world, it’s a mistake to think of gifting in material terms. Their efforts are heroic because of all the blood and sweat they put into it, but it’s not about the stuff: whoever hauls the biggest truck in doesn’t win. It’s about the experience of the people receiving the gift.
Gifts are always about the recipients, right? Not the givers. What’s in it for them?
As I’ve written previously, the best gifts are often the ones that create new connections between people – give them a shared experience that they can use to create friendships … and more shared experiences.
The gift culture, then, is most useful because it is a social lubricant – a legitimate way of reaching out to our fellow human beings that is non-exploitive and establishes a connection between people who have no other reason to talk to each other. It has nothing to do with an “economy” but everything to do with breaking down the barriers that isolate us as human beings.
Once you realize this, it ought to change the way you think about what a good “gift” is. An appropriate gift is not a trinket, a glow stick – or even food and water (though … thank you everyone who has kept me alive out there). An appropriate gift is tied to an experience: something that gives someone without friends a community, that connects unrelated biographies, that provides a story someone new can add to.
The people who hand out trinkets are better than nothing, but that’s weak tea. They’re thinking about *the things* they’re giving rather than *the people* they’re giving it too. It sort of serves the purpose, but it absolutely misses the point.
Gifting should inspire us to find new capacities to give that we didn’t know we had, and to use that to make more, and better, connections.
Perhaps the best slogan for great gifts is: “make the desert less lonely.”
“Make the playa more interesting” is close, but I think misses the most human element.
Either way: if you can do that for people, whether through your theme camp or your art car or your art, you’re doing it right.
If that little necklace you made yourself, if that hug, if that (ugh) DJing makes the desert less lonely and the playa more meaningful for someone – not for a crowd, but for a specific person – then … you’ve got it. But that’s a high bar. Is your necklace in fact part of an experience you’re sharing with someone – or is it just a thing you use so that you don’t have to share an experience? Are you connecting with people you don’t know through your DJing, or are you just isolating yourself for a while?
So many of you get this right and thank you so much, in advance, for all the wondrous things you are going to show me out there.
If on the other hand, you’re “drive-by gifting,” saying “here’s your glow stick, I’ve got someplace to be,” or “hey, I danced: what else do you want from me?” – if you’re using “gifting” as an excuse to be a part of the culture without connecting to human beings – then I’m sorry, that ain’t it.
Gifting is an aspiration, not a duty. A challenge, not a task. An opportunity – no matter how much we’ve given (or not) – to make the desert less lonely, the playa more interesting.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is an art project on the run from Burning Man’s secretive “Area 12.” His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com